27 January 2009

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The main reason I found myself reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is that with the movie release, the story was also re-released in its own paperback book. It feels like cheating to include such a short story in my list of books read, but hey… it has its own set of covers and its own barcode: technically it counts.

The shortness is another reason I found myself reading it. I went out for lunch one day, alone, and needed something to read besides the free newspaper, and Button was the shortest, cheapest thing available. Worked for me.

So Benjamin Button, if anyone's managed to avoid hearing about it from the movie trailers, is the story of a child who is born as an old man and then ages in reverse. It's all rather unbelievable – my brain is still going but how does even a shrunken, small 5-foot-whatever-inches old man fit inside a human womb? Did he expand the instant he hit air? - but really that bit of it is kind of irrelevant. Social satire and all that.

Opening paragraph:
As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.

I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.
People talk about how aging makes babies of adults – eventually you wind up in diapers, napping at all hours of the day, being fed soft foods because you've got no teeth. This book makes that idea quite literal. This is a surprisingly funny book, probably because it does so reverse the natural order of things. And of course there is something ridiculous, and thus funny, about an old man being treated as a child.

It's nice, though, to see that the situation isn't turned entirely into a farce. There's something occasionally sad about the story, the discomfort that such an odd life causes in Benjamin's family – his father doesn't truly relate to him until they reach an age where they look physically similar, the way his wife and son assume he's made some perverse choice to be so different from the rest of the world.

On of the things I really liked about this story is the structure of it, the way that Fitzgerald bookends events in his life. For instance, when he meets his wife, he looks old and she is young and everyone around them exclaims over the young woman attaching herself to such an old man, then later in life, he looks quite young and she's gotten old and everyone wonders how such a vibrant young man could end up married to an old woman. The story is full of events like this and it's one of my favourite literary devices, at least when done so well as this.

At any rate, this was a thoroughly enjoyable story. I think it would have been interesting to read more about Benjamin Button, but Fitzgerald probably did the right thing to keep it so short. I often don't like short stories, and I didn't like the only other Fitzgerald work I've read, The Great Gatsby, but I'm glad I picked this up despite my misgivings. Maybe I should give Fitzgerald more of a chance.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was the author of several novels, including The Beautiful and Damned and The Great Gatsby, and several collections of short stories. You can read the full text of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button online here or here.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Toronto: Scribner, 2007.
Finished: 21 January 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 pairs of short pants
This was my 4th book in January and my 4th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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